Norris: MLB Player Development Requires Time, Patience


Image credit: Anthony Volpe (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

In prospecting, as in life, patience is a virtue. 

Every so often, someone like Juan Soto comes along and is a sensation from the moment he steps on a big league field. In 2018, the then-Nationals prospect jumped directly from Double-A to Washington and hit the ground running.

He finished the year with a .923 OPS, 22 home runs and 79 RBIs in 116 games. A year later, he clubbed five postseason home runs and led the Nationals to a World Series win. 

Soto is the exception, not the rule.

Most prospects, no matter how highly touted, are going to hit plenty of roadblocks during their journey from the minors to the majors and will require time, development and, yes, patience, before they reach their final form. 

For proof, look no further than Anthony Volpe, whose job now revolves around getting on base in front of Soto in New York. 

Volpe, the Yankees’ first-round selection in 2019, entered the 2023 season as his team’s top-ranked prospect and made the big league club on Opening Day. Our last writeup of Volpe pegged him as a potentially plus hitter. He finished 2023 with a .209 batting average, a .666 OPS and an OPS+ of just 81. 

He was not a plus hitter by any stretch of the imagination. His wRC+, as measured by FanGraphs, was 84, just a hair better than Isiah Kiner-Falefa and one of the worst overall in the Yankees’ lineup. 

Turn the page to 2024, and Volpe looks like a new man. His average exit velocity is up a couple of ticks, from 88.7 mph in 2023 to 91.1 mph in the early portion of the season. He’s striking out less, walking more and appears much closer to the kind of hitter scouts predicted he’d be as he blitzed his way through the minor leagues. 

Is he going to hit .382 for the whole season? Almost certainly not, but in his age-23 season, he’s taken real strides forward and is one of this season’s best examples of why it might take years before a prospect can truly be judged as a success or a bust. 

There are plenty more examples in the minor leagues as well. 

One who jumps immediately to mind is Twins outfielder Emmanuel Rodriguez. Over the course of the last two seasons, scouts and executives who weighed in on our regular requests for feedback on our Top 100 Prospects list and the subsequent in-season updates told us to either hold Rodriguez steady or to move him up. 

In 2023 at High-A, Rodriguez looked like a potential three-true-outcomes hitter. He finished the year with 16 home runs, 92 walks and 134 strikeouts in 99 games. Over 455 games, he homered, walked or struck out in roughly 53% of his plate appearances. 

This season, Rodriguez, who turned 21 in January, has started like a house afire. He’s showing a strong sense of plate discipline—he has 10 walks and 11 strikeouts in eight games—but has already blasted four home runs and eight of his 10 hits have gone for extra bases. 

The sample size is very small and the Texas League has some of the most hitter-friendly parks in the minor leagues, but a Rodriguez renaissance in 2024 wouldn’t come as a shock to the evaluators who put big numbers on his card in the last couple of seasons. 

On the other side, there are certainly prospects whose slow starts shouldn’t come as a reason to push the panic button. 

One prominent example is Nationals prospect Dylan Crews. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2023 draft. He’s Washington’s No. 1 prospect and he currently places No. 6 in BA’s Top 100. In other words, he’s very talented, and has been one of the best prospects in the sport since well before he lit the Southeastern Conference on fire for three seasons at LSU. 

Crews reached Double-A toward the end of his first pro season in 2023 and returned to the level to begin 2024. He has not performed well at the level. Over 28 games spread across two seasons, he’s hitting just .229/.322/.343 with two home runs and 29 strikeouts. 

So, is there reason to panic? Not really. 

Despite his production as an amateur, Crews is human and baseball is hard. Besides the big leagues, Double-A is the biggest separator in the sport. It’s where throwers are separated from pitchers, hitters are separated from hackers and the best prospects begin proving their amateur and lower-level performances aren’t flukes. 

It might take a few months for Crews to get into the swing of things in Harrisburg, but 28 games—and just eight that weren’t immediately preceded by a long, pressure-packed college season—is not nearly enough time to change opinions on his ceiling.

He even finished his most recent series with Altoona with flourish, going 3-for-5 with a grand slam. 

Two years ago, Elly De La Cruz was fresh off taking the world by storm in the Arizona Complex and Florida State Leagues. He warmed up with the weather and finished the year with 28 home runs and 40 stolen bases. 

Now, he’s one of the sport’s most scintillating young stars, capable of taking fans’ breath away at the plate, on the bases or in the field. 

Volpe and De La Cruz were touted prospects who have turned into excellent young big leaguers. Rodriguez and Crews are tremendously talented players who might one day be the same, even if there are some highs and lows along the way.

It might just take a little bit of patience before they reach those heights.

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